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Brexit may threaten Irish cross-border care for patients

BMA seeks preservation of all-island care arrangements

Adrian O'Dowd

Friday, 02 June 2017

Doctors’ leaders have warned that Brexit may threaten the survival of crucial cross-border care arrangements for patients living in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Ahead of next week’s general election, the BMA today called on politicians to protect the future of patient care in Northern Ireland and the Republic following Brexit by ensuring that a ‘soft border’ is maintained.

Currently, there are open border arrangements, alongside an expansion in the provision of all-island healthcare, which provide various benefits for patients, including access to specialist medical services and highly trained clinicians, regardless of which side of the border patients live.

Examples of cross-border cooperation in healthcare between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland include:

  • an all-island paediatric cardiology service based at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Dublin that allows children from Northern Ireland and the Republic to receive heart surgery without having to undertake lengthy journeys or to travel to England for treatment,
  • a new radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin Hospital in Northern Ireland, which provides access to radiotherapy services for more than 500,000 cancer patients on both sides of the border.

As part of its general election manifesto, the BMA said it was urging politicians to ensure that cross-border health services and patient access to healthcare, including the cooperation of emergency services and other organisations in response to major emergencies and public health risks, would not be impeded following Brexit.

Dr Mark Porter, BMA council chair, said: “As separate health services in Northern Ireland and the Republic often do not have sufficient demand to provide cost-effective, highly specialist medical services, such as the all-island children’s cardiac service, the only viable way to provide these services to patients is to deliver them across both countries.

“Over the last two decades, a significant growth in the provision of all-island healthcare has improved care for patients and allowed both Northern Ireland and the Republic to retain highly trained doctors, who otherwise may not have had the patient demand necessary to warrant their full-time expertise. 

“If border restrictions are introduced following Brexit we risk reversing this progress and damaging patient care. The next government must maintain a soft border after Brexit to help ensure that cross-border health services and patient access to healthcare are not affected by leaving the EU.”

The BMA also called on the next government to safeguard the future of vital health services by ensuring that doctors in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland maintained the ability to move freely between both countries, and that mutual recognition of professional qualifications north and south of the border continued. 

Dr Peter Maguire, a consultant anaesthetist who lives and works in Newry in Northern Ireland but also travels across the border to work in Monaghan in the Republic of Ireland, said: “I am one of a number of Northern Irish doctors who regularly work across the border to care for patients.

“If a hard border is introduced following Brexit, it will present a number of difficulties for both health services and for people who live on the border.

“It has become increasingly difficult working in an NHS at breaking point and if the government fails to maintain a soft border in negotiations, and I am forced to choose which side of the border to work on, then I’m sad to say I will leave the NHS and move to the Republic.”

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